Many people stay in unhealthy and uncomfortable relationships much longer than they should, for a number of different reasons.
One of the main reasons why many choose to stick it out rather than head off for healthier, happier climes is guilt.
They might be completely miserable in their current circumstances but feel that they’re obligated to stick around because, if they don’t, anything that goes wrong after the breakup will be all their fault.
That kind of weight is difficult for anyone to carry on their shoulders.
If you’re unhappy in your relationship but are sticking around for fear of what might unfold if you leave, know that things aren’t going to get better. In fact, you’ll likely end up even more miserable and resentful as time goes by.
There are some actions that you could—should, even—consider taking to determine where to go from here.
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1. Be absolutely honest with yourself about why you’re staying.
This is the most important thing you can do, which is why it’s at the top of our list.
There are a number of guilt-related reasons why a person might remain in a relationship that has otherwise run its course.
Do you feel like you somehow “owe” them because of the time and/or money that they’ve invested in you? Or do they struggle with physical or mental health issues that you feel will worsen if you leave?
Alternatively, you might be staying in this relationship because you have children together and you feel like you owe it to them to stick around. This may be especially true if you have a child with special needs.
If you leave the relationship, one of you might have to take on far more parental responsibility than the other. As such, you might not love your partner anymore, but you’d feel too guilty abandoning ship and leaving them with the lion’s share of childcare.
Even if you don’t have kids, you might be fully aware that your partner will struggle financially (possibly significantly) if you leave them. You loved this person quite a lot before, and you may still care about them deeply—just not as a romantic partner anymore. As such, you’ll likely be wracked with guilt if you find out that they’re eating from food banks and using crowdfunding to pay for dental work after you leave.
Or, your partner might have moved thousands of miles to be with you, severing ties “back home” without any kind of safety net. Now, if the relationship isn’t working out as expected, you’d basically be throwing them out on the street alone. This is especially true if they don’t speak the language where you are and have been utterly dependent on you financially as well as emotionally.
All of these situations are awful to deal with, and the guilt of ending the relationship will be terrible too. Since running away in the middle of the night and spending the rest of your life as a Nepalese goatherd is likely not an option, you’ll need to brace yourself and find coping strategies for dealing with the maelstrom that’s going to unfold.
That’s where the remaining tips will help. You can put certain things into action to alleviate that guilt as it unfolds.
2. Talk to a therapist.
If you’ve been struggling with the decision to leave or not, it’s a good idea to book some time with a therapist.
Sure, you can talk to your friends and family members about what you’re going through, but they’re going to be emotionally invested one way or another. Furthermore, they aren’t just more likely to take sides regarding the situation—they might also go ahead and inform your partner what’s going on. If you haven’t decided whether to end things or not, this can make the current uncomfortable situation even more excruciating.
This is one of the many reasons why therapists are so invaluable. They’re completely neutral observers and helpers and can offer great perspective as well as potential solutions to what you’re going through.
As an added bonus, when and if anyone gives you a hard time about this decision later, you can let them know quite clearly that this wasn’t a hasty decision and that you sought therapy to try to salvage and work through things first. While that won’t silence naysayers completely, it’ll definitely work in your favor.
Furthermore, should you ever find yourself in a position where your ex-partner (or their family) takes you to court for one reason or another, you’ll have an impartial witness to call upon to support your side of the story.
This is a tricky situation, and one that can easily be made worse with the wrong approach. But Relationship Hero can guide the way and help you achieve the best outcome. Through regular sessions with a dedicated relationship expert (by yourself and/or as a couple), you’ll learn precisely how to create a healthier and more fulfilling relationship—one that can last a lifetime. Learn more about Relationship Hero and get the kind of tactical relationship advice and ongoing support you need.
3. Find solutions to the issues that cause you to feel guilty.
Let’s say that your partner helped to pay for your university education, or contributed money to help you start a business that’s now thriving. If your relationship has since fallen to pieces, you might feel as though if you left now, you’ve somehow “used” them to fund aspects of your life and are now discarding them for greener pastures.
Furthermore, it’s more than likely that other people (such as mutual friends and family members) will accuse you of exactly that behavior. Should you break up with this person shortly after finishing your degree or getting a big break at work, you’ll likely get called a “gold digger” or a “user.”
A good way to counteract this is to offer to pay them back for their contribution to your success, and make it known to everyone that this is the case. This exonerates you as a “user,” as you’re making it clear that you didn’t just milk them for cash and then leave as soon as it was convenient for you. By offering to reimburse, you’re showing clear honesty and integrity, so nothing can be thrown in your face during the breakup.
Of course, this option might not be available to everyone. Your partner may have supported you financially while you established yourself, and now that the relationship has fallen apart, you’re not in a position to reimburse them for what they might have construed as an investment in your future as a couple.
It happens. That’s just how life unfolds, sometimes.
You’re allowed to change your mind about relationships, no matter how committed you felt at one point. Furthermore, you’re allowed to live a life that’s true to who you are now, even if that’s very different from how—and whom—you were a few years ago. It was nice of them to pay for your pursuits, but if they did so willingly, without any demand for re-compensation later, then that’s water under the bridge.
For example, if you and your partner met in college, you may have connected for reasons that were important to you back then. Fast forward a few years, and you might be married. Maybe your in-laws helped you buy a great house and have been making some less-than-subtle hints about you having grandchildren.
It’s possible your spouse is also talking about starting a family, thus moving on to what they feel is the next healthy step in your relationship. But that doesn’t mean you’re on the same page as them.
People change a lot over time, and what’s important and perfect to you at the age of 19 might be completely different when you’re 29. You might have wanted children when you were in your early 20s, but now you’d rather stay child-free. Or, instead of living on a farm and raising chickens like you thought you wanted, you’d rather travel the world, working remotely from balconies in Tuscany and Prague.
But you started a journey with a person whom you thought you wanted by your side for life, and now that you’ve changed so much, you might feel immense guilt at the thought of leaving them. After all, you’ve been through so much together, and you’ll undoubtedly hurt them—and possibly their entire family—by leaving.
4. Establish alternative supports for your soon-to-be-ex partner, if applicable.
Some people stick it out in unhappy relationships because their partners are dependent upon them for one reason or another. Maybe they have a physical disability and need you to drive them around or help them with their mobility aids. Or perhaps they’re on the autism spectrum and have difficulty functioning independently.
In cases like this, it’s completely understandable that you’d feel immense guilt at the thought of ending the relationship. After all, going your separate ways would eliminate the most important support pillar in their life. As such, you might stick it out—even superficially—so as to prevent them from suffering.
Unfortunately, everyone ends up suffering in cases like these. When we know a relationship is over but we can’t leave (or think we can’t), we often just pay lip service to it. We check out mentally and emotionally and just go through the motions; doing what’s absolutely necessary, but that’s it. Perhaps you spend more time working away from home, and when you are at home, you’ll do your own thing rather than hanging out with your partner.
Although you may think that you’re doing them a kindness by staying, that may not be the case at all. They’re likely fully aware that you don’t want to be there anymore and are simply sticking around out of obligation. Or pity. Or both.
You may very well still love this person as a dear friend and family member, and as such you’ll want to ensure that there are supports in place for when you leave the picture.
Depending on what your partner’s needs are, there will be a number of different options available to you. For example, if they have a physical disability, they’ll likely be eligible for programs like public wheelchair transportation.
Similarly, if they have a mental illness or disability, they may be eligible for assisted living programs. Depending on the severity, they might have a case worker who stops by occasionally to see how they’re doing, or they might fare better in a group home where staff members can supervise them more closely.
Things get tricky if your partner has a terminal illness, however.
Your relationship might have been swirling down the drain for some time, and you may have been planning to end things… only all of a sudden, your partner gets diagnosed with something serious. People who leave their partners when death is looming are usually vilified by everyone around them, even if things had been bad for years and were coming to their natural end.
In a case like this, having those support options in place is absolutely vital.
Find out which friends and family members would be able to step in and offer help regarding transportation for medical treatments, shopping, and so on. Then look into in-home nursing and/or hospice care options. This way, you won’t feel as much guilt about “abandoning” this person: instead, you are passing the rod of stewardship to other people.
And that’s okay. Terminal illnesses aren’t always short—they can be years long depending on the condition. You do not have to stand by your partner for all that time simply because they are on their final journey from this plane of existence.
5. Weigh the pain of future guilt against the ugliness of your current circumstances.
Do you want to leave, but are afraid that you’ll be made to feel awful if and when you do?
This is a situation that many people find themselves in when they’re in difficult relationships, especially with narcissists.
They might be abused and/or used by their partner in numerous ways, but won’t rip that bandage off because of how much it may hurt when they do so. This can be especially true if the narcissist partner doesn’t have many (any?) friends or family members to help them out. Since narcissists are often solitary creatures, focusing all their energy and attention on their (often empathic) partners, this is quite a common scenario.
The empath partner might be working themselves to the bone to support the narcissist financially, emotionally, and so on, while also walking on eggshells so as not to set them off into a raging fury or silent treatment punishment.
Furthermore, many narcissists weaponize guilt in order to get—and keep—what they want. If they feel that their partner is drumming up the strength to end the relationship, they might change dramatically and “love bomb” them for a while.
They might pretend to get all emotional and go on about how much they appreciate such kindness and care, and that they’d be “so lost and alone” without their partner. Then, once the partner seems suitably cowed, they’ll go back to their usual awful behavior and cruelty.
The empath has likely been dealing with this kind of rollercoaster for years, having their self-esteem worn away as they’ve been used and abused, but they’re terrified of the kind of onslaught that’ll happen if they stand firm and say it’s over.
That narcissist partner might choose to punish them in a variety of different ways. They might play victim, turning the empath’s social circle against them for being so cruel and hateful; throwing them out on the street when they’re vulnerable. Furthermore, they might do more aggressive things to punish their now-ex, such as putting intimate photos of them online or reporting them to authorities for made-up reasons.
If you’re dealing with a situation like this, you don’t need to feel guilty about it. Try to keep a log (preferably somewhere password-protected that your partner can’t access) about all the awful things they do to you. Include things they’ve done in the past, and be as detailed as possible with dates, locations, and so on.
Then take pre-emptive steps. Talk to your employer and let them know that you’re ending a relationship with an abuser, and that this person might reach out to slander you. Do the same with the friends and family members whom you trust the most. This might be embarrassing, but may prove to be vital later on.
Finally, talk to your local law enforcement family liaison officers and ask them if it’s possible to have support while you’re kicking your partner out. You’ll need to let them know what’s been going on, and they’ll have you on file as an abused party in case your ex tries to pull anything dramatic.
Furthermore, if you think your ex might get abusive—even violent—when you let them know it’s over, they should be able to arrange for police presence to keep you safe.
As always, please don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you feel you need it. Don’t let the potential worry about guilt in embarrassing or hurting them hold you back from living a healthier life. They’re not worth your pain.
6. Talk to your family about how you’re feeling.
This might be a shot in the dark here, but if you’ve been in a relationship with someone you love for quite a while, it’s likely that they give you a lot of love and support. That love might actually be unconditional, or at least as close to unconditional as possible.
If you’re able to talk to your partner candidly about issues that bother you in general, consider talking to them about how you feel. After all, this is likely the most important person in your life, and if you trust and respect them, the best course of action might be radical honesty.
As an example, let’s say you’ve been struggling with your sexuality or gender identity for some time, but you’re afraid to take a leap in that particular direction because you don’t want to hurt or alienate your spouse and children. Depending on your upbringing, you might already be feeling immense guilt for what may be seen as “immoral” leanings.
Maybe you’ve been trying hard to not feel the way you do and feel guilt that you haven’t been able to push those inclinations aside. You might feel guilt about the possibility that your children will hate you or that they’ll be mocked and mistreated by their peers if you choose a more authentic form of self-expression.
Try talking to your spouse openly about what it is you’re going through. You can even try broaching the subject with your children, provided that they’re old enough to process this information in a healthy manner.
You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that your partner has had an inkling about your leanings all along and is relieved that you’re finally ready to talk about this.
Furthermore, kids can be surprisingly resilient, as well as accepting. You may have been giving yourself an ulcer worrying about how they might react, feeling immense guilt about breaking up or changing the family dynamics, and they may simply shrug and ask what your new pronouns are before going back to their video game.
If you hope for the best but expect the worst, the reality usually ends up being somewhere in the middle. Yes, things will be difficult as they change, but all change is uncomfortable in one way or another. Hopefully, by living more authentically, that guilt can be transformed into a learning experience for everyone involved. Heck, you may end up being a huge role model for your kids, especially if they struggle with similar issues in the future.
Finally, you may discover that the partner you were eager to get away from ends up being your greatest ally. In fact, they might be ready for some changes of their own. The two of you may even end up rekindling things as you both step into more authentic versions of yourselves and get to know these “new” versions all over again.
7. Protect yourself against potential sabotage.
This is an unfortunate thing to even have to mention, but it occurs so often that it has to be touched upon.
Remember how we talked about narcissists punishing their partners for having the audacity to break up with them? That isn’t limited to narcissists. All manner of people have the potential to sabotage their partners so they don’t (or can’t) leave.
If you haven’t yet discussed breaking up with your partner but things have obviously been rough for a while, they might already be aware of your imminent plans. As such, they might make efforts to keep you, one way or another.
For example, my partner’s friend knew his girlfriend wanted to travel abroad while he wanted to settle down. As a result, when he felt that she was getting antsy, he poked holes in their condoms and got her pregnant.
She didn’t believe in abortion, so he got to keep his partner (and their child) exactly where he wanted them. Similarly, a friend of mine wanted to end his marriage, but his wife got him drunk one night and ended up pregnant as well.
In the latter case, he ended up leaving her anyway and is still being condemned for “abandoning” her 10 years later.
If you think that your partner has the potential to take drastic action to keep you, then take steps to protect yourself. Move money into a solo account if you think they’d have you removed from a joint one. Keep your important documents in a bank safety deposit box, and a suitcase or bag full of essential items (change of clothes, medication, etc.) at a trusted friend’s place.
8. Don’t draw things out longer than you have to.
If you’ve been waffling about ending this relationship for a while but have been too worried about all the guilt and bad feelings you may have to deal with, pick a lane.
Either choose to stay in this situation for a good long while or rip the bandage off and end things quickly.
One of the best ways to avoid feeling guilt about leaving a relationship is to stop stringing your partner along indefinitely. You might be sticking around because you don’t want to be the “bad guy” by leaving, but by not taking that step and ending things, you’re also trapping your partner by your side.
If you bit the bullet and told them that it was over, that would free them up to pursue another, healthier relationship with someone who actually wants to be with them. Don’t waste precious years of their life—or yours for that matter—in a relationship that has all but officially ended.
Imagine how you’d feel if the roles were reversed and your partner told you 20 years from now that they hadn’t loved you for decades but stayed with you out of guilt and obligation. You might have been trying with all your heart to make it work, only to have all your efforts fall short and you didn’t understand why.
Suddenly, you discover that you could have been free to live an entirely different life, for decades, but they chose not to let you have that freedom because well, they didn’t want to deal with feeling bad about it.
How would that make you feel? Would you want to experience that kind of hurt and betrayal? Or would you prefer that they tell you early so you could start anew while you still have the chance?
Treat your partner as you’d want to be treated, and you’ll have far less guilt to contend with in the future.
9. Be compassionate toward yourself.
In most cases, the person who will throw the most cruelty and guilt-tripping abuse in your direction is yourself.
Much like in the previous tip, do a bit of self-reflection and ask how you’d react if the roles were reversed. Or, better still, ask yourself what you would tell a dear friend if they were struggling with the same situation.
Would you condemn them as a selfish monster who only cares about themselves? Or would you be supportive and understanding? A good friend would be there for you as you worked through this mess, all the while reassuring you that you aren’t a complete bastard for staying in a situation that’s getting increasingly more excruciating.
That said, be aware that there may well be some ugly fallout from ending this relationship. That’s especially true if your partner deals with mental illness or if your children end up taking the breakup badly. This is where it’s important to remember that every person’s life is their own to live: that their choices are their own, and nobody can “make” anyone else feel or do anything else.
If you find that your children are struggling emotionally—especially if they ever mention self-harm—make sure they get the help they need immediately. Similarly, if your ex-partner expresses the possibility that they’ll hurt themselves because you left them, reach out to their friends and family to ensure that they get help as well.
Whatever happens, know that you are not responsible for other people’s actions. While we might influence other people’s thoughts and emotions, what they choose to do with those experiences is entirely up to them. They can either appreciate what was and move on to new pastures or wallow in their perception of wrongdoing and injustice.
Focus on yourself and the new life you’re forging, and pour all you have into living (and loving) authentically. That’s the best gift you can give yourself, as well as those closest to you. You’ll undoubtedly be a better person, parent, and friend if you’re not a ball of anger, stress, resentment, and depression all the time.
Besides, at the end of the day, the pain we imagine unfolding is rarely what unfolds. So all the guilt you think you’ll feel by ending things is undoubtedly far, far greater than what will actually come to pass.
Take a deep breath, ground yourself, make a decision, and follow through with it. Things might feel difficult right now, but you know what? It’ll all be okay.
Still not sure what to do about your relationship? This is a tricky situation, and one that can easily be made worse with the wrong approach. But Relationship Hero can guide the way and help you achieve the best outcome. Through regular sessions with a dedicated relationship expert (by yourself and/or as a couple), you’ll learn precisely how to create a healthier and more fulfilling relationship—one that can last a lifetime. Learn more about Relationship Hero and get the kind of tactical relationship advice and ongoing support you need.
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- When To Call It Quits In A Relationship: 19 Signs It’s Time
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- 17 Questions To Help You Decide Whether To Stay In Your Relationship
- What To Do If You’re Unhappy In Your Relationship But You Love Him/Her